Appreciating Japanese Ceramic

by Robert Yellin (19 August 2009)

ArtIn pottery, as with life, sometimes the most basic questions are the most important: Why is this so? Or, how did this happen? Or, what does this part mean?

What makes a fine Japanese pot is a question that many of you interested in visiting Japan’s ceramic towns may have asked before.

When first looking at a piece of pottery, whether it be a chawan (tea bowl), tsubo (large jar) or just hashioki (chopstick rest), don’t immediately start asking yourself questions, such as: What style is it? What period? Who made it? Is it an original or a copy? Any restorations? These questions should come later.

First one must see and listen, without words. In this way of looking at Japanese pottery a slow and subtle dialogue will naturally come about between the viewer and the viewed. If a pot doesn’t “speak” to you, forget it. Plus, the aesthetics that western civilization values are not always the same in the orient, and that holds especially true for many of Japan’s famous stonewares, where imperfections often add character to a piece.

Okay. A pot appeals to you. Now return to that initial question: What makes it good?

The most basic and ultimately important question, though, is: Can I live with this pot? Many times a piece will jump out and then, like a fireworks display, dazzle and disappear. Such a piece would not be a “lifelong companion,” as Masako Shirasu, a renowned collector, once described a pot she lived with for decades.

Since pots are basically clay, fire, air, water and the potter’s skill and spirit (which cannot be hidden) one should look at the clay of stoneware first off to see if the clay has been brought to life in the fire of the kiln. Of course for porcelain it’s completely different. Yet on a Bizen, Shigaraki, Iga or other high-fired, unglazed piece, it’s the quality of the firing and the tsuchi-aji (clay flavor) that matter most. Sometimes a Shigaraki or Bizen piece is amai (underfired); on the other hand, it might be yaki-sugi (overfired). The clay might not have been processed correctly or might have a very boring tsuchi-aji. Looking at the clay will often reveal the age of the pot as well. Then one might see stones bursting out, or firing cracks, or shapes that are very asymmetrical; all of these are not considered faults at all and actually, as noted above, add character.

Next comes form. Even with centuries-old shapes, like a tsuru-kubi (crane’s neck) vase, a freshness can be felt if the potter’s spirit and technique are in order and he or she has felt the vibrancy in the prototypes. Indeed, it is rare to find such contemporary potters, but they do exist.

Many potters not content to copy the past want to create something fresh and compatible with modern life. This is a great challenge. We find much originality in form but very few pieces with grace and beauty — they are destined to become “fireworks displays.”

A basic question on beauty is: Will something stand the test of time? I once asked a Bizen potter why he continued to make pots in the same forms as his ancestors did. He replied that the simple beauty of form need not be changed if it worked well. In that simplicity was his spirit and believe me, making something so deep appear so simple isn’t an easy thing to do. It takes years of learning, and then unlearning as the late great Hamada Shoji once said.

Certainly a critical factor in choosing a pot is price, and we all know that good Japanese pots aren’t cheap. Yet, if you look and train your eye you will find good pots to fit your budget.

And now that you have the opportunity to come to Japan, visit the great kiln centers and even try your hand at the creating, you’ll discover a new world of beauty, the beauty of Japan and her splendid ceramic traditions.

About Mr. Robert Yellin
Mr. Robert Yellin has lived in Japan since 1984, and runs a Japanese pottery gallery in Kyoto. He is one of the pioneers to deal with Japanese pottery on the internet targeting overseas residents.
He imparts how attractive Japanese ceramics is through his eyes as a non-Japanese, and influences even a lot of Japanese.

[ Reference ]
Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery